| Every Woman Has A Story |
By Daryl Ott Underhill
Genre: Inspirational & Self-Help
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Women and Friendship
The Circle of Decades
Cay Randall-May, PhD.
Circles fascinate me. Our lives are full of them, from a baby's teething ring to the rims of granny's reading glasses. The circles that have changed me most were formed by people holding hands. The "circle of decades" at my friend Carol's croning ceremony will always be in my memory, like a safety ring tied to the side of a boat. In case of near drowning, I'll toss it out and use it to stay afloat until the storm subsides.
It began as a gathering of women in the rosy amber twilight of a spring evening in Tucson. We were friends whose lives were about to intertwine in a strong braid of shared experience. Our leader asked us to sum up the memories of each decade of our lives. "What was it like to be in your twenties?" I was glad I wasn't the first to speak, because it took a moment for me to reconnect with that intense, fiery, burn-the-candle-at-three-ends woman/child of the 1960s who I had been. Sensuous and fanatically serious, I was mesmerized with dreams of impossible achievement. Memories of graduate school in Berkeley crashed like breakers on my heart as I could almost hear the distant refrain of "We shall overcome . . ." It was certainly interesting to have been in my twenties in that era, but I could also remember the skimp of the miniskirt and the size-five jeans that I slithered into like a snake shedding its skin in reverse. I felt relief when those of us no longer in our twenties were asked to take a step forward, tightening the circle.
"Now, share what it was like to be in your thirties," our leader prompted. My eyes closed. Sounds of birth cries, the primal embrace of a totally trusting swaddled infant, the smell of baby powder and diapers overwhelmed me. I had discovered the most difficult and rewarding job of all, motherhood, at the age of thirty. My thirties were a time of changed priorities, deflated party balloons, struggle with budgets, and plain hard work. Would I willingly return to that time of snowsuits and runny noses, putting the Christmas tree in the playpen to keep it from the toddlers? I don't think so, but I didn't want to step forward, either.
Because the next step was the forties, and those who had experienced this decade sighed with me. How could ten short years have held such highs and lows? I wished the twilight were a little deeper so no one could see the tears creeping down my cheeks, but other faces were also glistening. My story of ending a nineteen-year marriage and remarrying a man more attuned to my heart was not unique. Many others had found the forties to be a decade of major endings and beginnings. My hard-won career as a biologist, desperately precious to me at one time, had changed into a more spiritual and philosophical path. This decade, which began in gut-stabbing sorrow, ended in joy.
Another inward step, this time not so tentative, brought us to the fifties. Eyes began to sparkle again and I heard the giggles of those relieved to have once more survived their forties. We who were privileged to stand in the fifties decade shared newly explored interests, old talents polished like jewels, and we were finding our true path and power. As each woman shared her joyful enthusiasm for inner growth, I began to wonder what the next step would bring. What would women in their sixties share? Could that decade possibly be as good as the fifties, or was it the downward side of the mountain, as I had always been led to expect. I held back as the circle squeezed closer.
One by one, the members of the inner circle shared stories of personal freedom, new loves, the joys of grandchildren, travel and adventures, punctuated with smiles and glowing glances. All this enthusiasm caught my attention like a snow cone on a June afternoon. There was something worth knowing here. The women in this circle of decades were becoming more profoundly happy as they matured. A sliver of doubt wedged in my mind that maybe it was just something about the sixties decade that was so rewarding. Surely, the seventies would be different. My doubts didn't last long.
Our leader proudly stepped forward, the only representative of the seventies, to become the heart of our circle. We raised her in our hearts like team members parading a triumphant star athlete. Her vigorous, wise-woman leadership spoke decibels louder than any words she could say. What I experienced that afternoon in the "circle of decades" helped me edit my life's script so that I look forward to the challenges and transitions ahead.
The ancient ceremony of croning was conducted when a woman stopped menstruating. It was an initiation into a "wise women's club," enabling the women to hold positions of power. Cay's story was based on a croning ceremony she attended. "It was a unique opportunity for us to review our lives. This moment of honest sharing gave me the priceless gift of a new vision, a hopeful pattern for aging." Cay is a professional intuitive consultant, she lectures on various topics related to creativity and intuitive development, and she teaches a course entitled "Intuitive Heart Discovery Process."
Letters to Friends
I mailed 323 letters to friends last year.
And 437, the year before that.
I received four replies, not including the increasingly illegible notes from my grandfather and the token letter from my congressman.
I'd been putting this off, this spring cleaning, for about three years. And that day was the perfect day to do it: Outside, the clouds were pregnant with rain, inside, a fire cracked and popped in the woodstove.
With each name in my address book that was to be erased would go a history, a few more memories of the good times shared and the chances of ever getting the friendship back. I didn't want to let go of any of them, regardless how tenuous the hold.
I took a deep breath, flipped my pencil over, and cracked open the worn pages of the leather-bound book. A piece of paper fell to the floor, one of many with which the book was stuffed. It bore an address I wasn't sure at the time would reach permanent status in my book.
The name was familiar, as was the face; they all were. This one, from a high school chum with whom I was reunited at an impromptu party when I went home for Grandma's funeral, was crumpled up and tossed aside.
Melissa Anderson, with whom I'd shared numerous cups of coffee in college as we struggled through ornithology, was my next victim. A great writer while in college, her high-stress career on Wall Street long ago knocked me off her list of priorities.
Deb Bowie would be third. The scrawny woman with stringy hair and a shrill Massachusetts accent had pulled me out of more problems than I could count. Where she was anymore, I didn't know. I knew that at thirty-three, she had become a grandmother, having adopted her grandson as her own.
Gary and Rosemary. Cocaine, divorce, jail. Erased.
Hedwig Diehl. My other Grandma. She'd died last April; it was all I could do to erase her name from the top "Name/Address/City" line where her name had sat, in a child's block letters, for twenty-four years.
Juan Florence. Another high school buddy, ravaged by alcohol after the deaths of his parents.
The Filmores. His name got eraseddeath requires that. He was the minister who married us, atop a 10,350-foot mountain. He was eighty-three years old when we asked if he'd conduct the ceremony; that he would have to take a screeching ski lift to the summit didn't faze this man. "I'll be that much closer to heaven," he said.
Kristen Holland. The hardest one to erase, and one I shall never forget. I was engaged to her older brother for years before we finally called it quits. But I kept in touch with Kristen, even after she announced her homosexuality. She was disowned by her family, including the man I had once loved. I can still see her short white-blond hair whipping from side to side as she bounced all over the dance floor of our favorite bar. That woman never missed a moment of life.
The rain began to fall outside and the wind picked up.
The I's, J's, and K's were left unscathed, but L was where it all fell apart.
Janet Loren. The name brought a smile to my face. We'd met on a Grateful Dead tour and traveled from California to Maine, Washington to Florida, dancing the dance that never ended to the music that never stopped. She's probably on a Phish tour, now that Jerry's gone, I thought. Sholyo Im Fi Zhami, Janet. Sholyo.
Albert Lowe. We went back to the fifth grade, when he sat across from me in Mr. Ash's class. He was the first boyand Chinese (my mother would have died)I felt I really loved. Eleven-year-old unrequited puppy love. The last time I saw him, we were drinking froufrou drinks and betting on the ponies.
Ann Long. She wouldn't remember me anymore, since she was struck by a car and suffered enough brain damage to keep her in a coma for months. She'd never be the same, but I'd kept her name in my book for all these years. Just in case. People come out of comas, I told myself.
Among those who survived the carnage of my eraser was Caroline Winters, my first best friend, who moved to Ireland when I was ten, and she twelve. I wrote her today, one of thirty-seven letters written while the rain pounded down outside. One last chance, for both of us.
I closed the book and tucked it away. It was a lot thinner for my efforts, a small pile of crumpled paper lay at my feet.
The names fell away in eraser crumbs, but they will be replaced by others in time.
But the memories, I hope, will linger on.
Jane is a newspaper editor and freelance magazine writer. She lives in Breckenridge, Colorado, with her husband, John, and seven-year-old daughter, Erin. When I asked her what prompted her story, she said, "I was writing letters and thinking how few people write back, and how sad it is that friendships fade away."
I have several friends
we are all of an age
poised on a millennium edge
huddled together on a cosmic window ledge.
Among ushealers and crones
skeptic and dry bones
we live here and there
each to her own lair
divided by zones
held together by phones.
we fling out hope
like colored strands of rope
and catching the skeins
we eat jelly beans
while tying knots
and sharing thoughts.
It is thus that we weave
wondrous webs with leaves
tiny seeds and great deeds
with little dreads
and golden threads
with bits of magic
and some things tragic
and in the weaving
the giving and the receiving
we soothe our soul
connected and whole.
We are wives and mothers,
nurses, nuns, and daughters
from large to small
But separate us
one from the other
and then we sleep
burying our strength so far under
it becomes as powerful as lightningless thunder.
We boom and trill
whine and shrill
consumed by doubt
with wanton disregard
we discover the sacred
The power once given in trust
vanquishes and eludes us.
It smashes and destroys
denuding our joys
and lost in leaden slumber
our heavy bodies lumber
our spirit deplete
we seek to find
some rent in time
a fairy, a saint
a new coat of paint
and then we recall
the web that relates us all.
And so we cast our dreams
in shimmering streams
in every aspect.
Sue is an independent-event and marketing consultant, mother of four, grandmother of two. She feels she has had the good fortune to meet and become friends with several remarkable women. "They are a source of wisdom and nourishment for me, as I am for them." Most of her friends are not in the same geographical area, and they rely on the telephone, writing, and occasional visits to nourish the friendship. Her poem was inspired by speaking with friends who were wrestling with the same issues, and realizing that she wasn't alone.
My mother, my sister, and I are, at times, as different as the seasons. There are years between us, the many experiences of adulthood that we have not shared together, and other differing emotions and opinions to separate us. Some time ago, my mother developed lupus, which, although it is a grief commonly shared among the family, is her own private struggle. My sister is discovering the wild, wonderful world of teaching budding adolescents, which is an experience I can only briefly remember from the viewpoint of a former adolescent. As for myself, I have been selling auto parts for the past six years, meanwhile writing in every spare moment and hoping desperately for some golden opportunity to drop into my lap out of the cheery blue sky. You may have guessed by now that I'm the hopeless dreamer of the family, always busy watching life pass me by.
This past January, I visited my mother and sister, who now conveniently live about an hour apart, for a few days, and I learned something about myself in the process. There is a tiny little corner of me that has always been terrified of family. It has something to do with the powerful bond, the intimacy that is demanded. As a child, I was always afraid of being swallowed up into this great big entity and never being able to find myself again. I struggled hard to find a voice to separate myself, creating wonderful imaginary worlds. Even now, I find myself drawn into daydreams, like exotic quicksand. I hate to admit this, but I'm just not as fond of the real world as some people think I should be. However, on my visit, I rediscovered that my real-world family can be fantastic, and they might even help heal some old wounds if I let them.
There is something about my sister that automatically brings out the silliness in me. I had almost forgotten it until I saw that old familiar face, more like my own than any other. There are five years between us, but they don't make a bit of difference now. It's almost like being reunited with myself, because no thoughts expressed between us are incomprehensible, no jokes ever hang in the air like an albatross. For once, I never have to worry about feeling stupid for making some arbitrary comment. It is the equivalent of pure, creative freedom.
For some reason, I have always viewed Paula as the perfect, logical daughter. She was better at math, her organizational skills were existent as opposed to mine, and she always managed to come out on top. I cannot begin to tell you how happy I was to see her apartment. It was, of course, very tastefully decorated, much more so than the hodgepodge I call home, but it looked like someone really lived there. There were no plastic covers on the furniture. Dishes lay in the sink, books sat on the floor, and there were papers strewn across the dining room table. God had just handed me a present, complete with bows and wrapping paper. I could barely contain my excitement.
We talked about a lot of things, especially our dreams. Both of us want so much more out of life than we'll probably ever find. Our childhoods were more violent than most, and we've always wondered how we might have turned out under different circumstances. Still, the human soul is a funny thing. Hardships tend to make it blossom and increase its strength. I think we both believe it was worth it to have had the kind of life that we experienced because it made us the women we are today. Well maybe not all the experiences, but we could be so much less than what we have become.
Our mother is such an extraordinary woman. She has had a life riddled with hardships, but she never gives up. There are times when I've wanted to sit with her and ask her how she does it, what keeps her going, but I don't think she likes to dwell on it much. When my sister and I walked through the door, her face lit up. She was so happy to have her two girls together again. I think it helped her in some small way, and us, as well.
The last evening we spent together, we were all sitting on the couch, talking, and it occurred to me how much I had taken for granted. Our lives were all so fragile, so transitory. How often had I overlooked them over the years, these two women who were so very precious to me? Suddenly, I had been initiated into this sacred sisterhood. We were women, we were family, and, together, we were home.
Jennifer shares her home with her two dogs, four cats, and "a wonderful man." Reflecting on her relationship with her mother and sister, she became aware of the strong connection they shared as women, and the significance of their friendship. "As I grow older and wiser, I am fortunate enough to realize how dear and precious family truly is."
The Day After Parents' Night
Gail M. Hicks
I wore something cute and perky to the fourth-grade parents' night because I wanted to look good, even if I didn't feel that way. All schools make me feel as shy and insecure as when I myself was attending; but most especially does the elementary school that my youngest attends. At the middle school, all the parents are older than me, and I can relax in the knowledge that my hips are a little slimmer than most and my breasts a bit higher. But for the fourth-grade parents' night, I had to wear my cutest little red print mini and my sleeveless chambray weskit, high-heeled slings with no hose, and my biggest silver hoop earrings. I looked good, and, for a while, I was glad I had taken the effort.
I was the first to arrive, even before the teacher, because I am chronically early for everything. "Mrs. Straight, it's so nice to see you," said Mrs. Turly as she unlocked the classroom door. "Just find Erica's name tag, and you can sit at her desk." Parents began to fill the room, and, attempting to be anonymous, I retreated gratefully behind my cute, if binding, outfit. I am sure I was smiling my friendliest smile at everyone who caught my vacant gaze, when, suddenly, I found myself smiling up into a very familiar face. It was Tina Blanding, the cheerleader. For a very long moment, I was terrified, as of old, but when she did not recognize me, I thought, with no small amount of relief, that perhaps I was mistaken. But no, I couldn't be. She was fat and dressed frumpily in an oversized Hawaiian-print camp shirt and khaki pleated shorts, but there was no mistaking that pretty face. And then I remembered how very cute I looked, and the thought crossed my mind that perhaps I could approach the heretofore unapproachable Tina. After all, I thought, we are all adults, and I look so much better than her, she wouldn't have the nerve to snub me.
"Hi, I think I know you," I said. A faint glimmer of recognition showed on her face. "Are you Tina Blanding?"
"Carver High, right?" she replied.
"Yea, and actually, Washington Elementary, too."
"That's right." She smiled. "I thought I recognized you. I'm Tina Rayford now, but, I'm sorry, I don't remember your name."
"Cheryl Straight. Well, used to be McDunough."
"That's right, I do remember you," she said, in a way that made me wonder whether or not I should be happy about that.
Just at that moment, Mrs. Turly began to speak, and we parents took our places at the desks of our respective children. I had done well, I thought. Well enough that I could relax a little and, yes, even be happy that Tina had remembered me, for whatever reason. Perhaps I had finally achieved a level of social status equal to the great Tina Blanding: cheerleader, socialite, popular person.
My feelings of equality, however, were short-lived, for, when I attempted to speak with Tina at the end of the evening, she seemed bothered by the whole affair. She was polite, but then quickly excused herself when I started to suggest that we and our daughters might get together sometime. She very hurriedly said good-bye to Mrs. Turly and left the room. Again, I had been snubbed. How silly of me to think that she and I could be friends. I am a nobody, and she is a somebody, and never the twain shall go shopping together.
I did not think of Tina again until the following spring. I was grateful to my daughter for not befriending Tina's, for this way, I could easily assist Tina in avoiding me altogetherand we had not so much as crossed paths for the past seven months. I kept myself safe and did not place my feelings where their care would not be certain.
But feelings are uncertain and safety illusive. And shortly before school's end, a note came home. There had been a death: a parent of one of the students in my fourth grader's class. After a long struggle with breast cancer, the note said, Mrs. Tina Rayford was dead. The school psychologist would be speaking in each of the three classes affected to guide the children through the grieving process. "Please call the appropriate number for questions or help," it said: something I will always wish I had done the day after parents' night.
Gail believes learning and growing are forever and ongoing, painful and humorous, humiliating and uplifting. "Growing up is hard to do, and just when you think you're finished, you find yourself in need of more growth." She is the single mother of three "wonderful (most of the time) children." She is currently working toward her B.A. in women's studies.
Excerpted from Every Woman Has A Story , by Daryl Ott Underhill . Copyright (c) 1999 by Daryl Ott Underhill . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top